Time magazine called Toni L. Griffin a “star urban planner,” which doesn’t have quite the same ring as “starchitect,” but properly describes the 46-year-old. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where she still teaches, Griffin began her career in the private sector, working first for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in her native Chicago. While at SOM, she helped turn the Renaissance Center, John Portman’s office and hotel complex in downtown Detroit, into General Motors Co.’s world headquarters. From SOM, she went to work for the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation, focusing on planning and heritage tourism initiatives, and then to the Washington, D.C., planning office, where she oversaw redevelopment projects. From Washington, she moved to Newark, N.J., where, within three years, the planning office she rebuilt was winning awards—among them, an award from the New Jersey chapter of the American Planning Association for its work on sustainable infill housing guidelines.

This spring, Griffin signed on for what may be America’s toughest urban planning challenge: helping to remake Detroit, a city that has seen its population decline by half over 60 years. In September, Griffin helped Mayor Dave Bing’s administration launch the Detroit Works Project, a 12- to 18-month effort to map the city’s future. It began with a series of widely attended public forums.

A Manhattan resident, Griffin spends most of the week in an office in Detroit City Hall. In an arrangement that reflects the strong interest of philanthropists in Detroit’s future, her salary is paid by the Kresge Foundation (which has an endowment of over $3 billion). Rip Rapson, Kresge’s president and son of architect Ralph Rapson, is also giving the city funds for Griffin to hire a team of local, national, and international consultants, from the private sector and four Michigan universities. Several other foundations are expected to provide funding to support both the technical and civic engagement components of the project.

Author Fred A. Bernstein first met Griffin in 2004, when they were both participants in the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in Charleston, S.C. She spoke to him on a recent weekend from her apartment in Harlem.

How did the Detroit job come about?

When Mayor Bing began his first full term in January, leaders of the private sector were determined to help him tackle the extraordinary challenges facing Detroit. At the same time, Kresge and other foundations wanted to make sure their investments aligned with the city’s needs, both programmatically and spatially.

This leadership saw now as the opportunity create a shared vision for the city, across sectors and inclusive of broad civic engagement. I was asked to join the mayor’s team to assemble and manage a team to create this vision with members of his staff.

What are some of those extraordinary challenges?

In many ways, Detroit is struggling with the same chronic urban issues that many of our nation’s older postindustrial cities face—high unemployment, population loss, deteriorating infrastructure, and property abandonment.

Detroit at its peak, in the 1950s, had nearly 2 million people. It is down to about 800,000—we won’t know for sure until next year, when we start to get preliminary numbers from the Census Bureau. That population decline translates into approximately 40 square miles of unused land, in a city of about 139 square miles. So, the real challenge becomes: How do you plan for a city that was built with an infrastructure too large for its present population?

Newark, too, has seen a population decline over the past half-century. Did you learn lessons from Newark that may be helpful in Detroit?

Newark has always been a denser city, with a greater mix of housing types. In fact, there was one point in Newark’s history when over 40 percent of its residents lived in multifamily buildings, predominately public housing. Detroit is quite different. Close to 80 percent of the city’s housing stock is single-family detached houses, most of them on 50-by-100-foot lots. But not everyone wants to live in a single-family home, so in order to both retain residents, including young people, and attract new ones, Detroit needs a greater variety of housing types.

Are long-time residents fearful?

Given all the challenges facing the city, some residents are nervous about what’s going to happen to their homes and to their neighborhoods. In fact, some have been worried that the city already had a plan to relocate people from their homes.

Won’t some people, in fact, have to move, if the city can no longer provide fire, sanitation, police, and other services to their present locations?

The city is not looking at a forced relocation strategy. The team is sensitive to the scars left by federal urban renewal programs in the mid-to-late ’60s, which in fact did uproot people. So we’re talking about giving people choices to live in neighborhoods that can best provide the services they need.

It’s going to be tough, but the planning process seeks to create more efficient and sustainable patterns of development and growth, as well as seeking new possibilities for the repurposing of land. The city must continue to provide its residents with quality services. With the availability of underutilized land and housing stock—by the way, there is still a good amount of affordable housing stock in rehab condition—we have an opportunity to strengthen the city’s traditional neighborhoods as well as create new, compact, and more diverse neighborhood typologies.

But how can people continue to live in neighborhoods that can no longer support police and other services?

We’re talking about giving people choices to live in parts of the city that can best provide access to the services and amenities they need. Remember, people have been voluntarily choosing to relocate, depopulating sections of the city. So now we have to figure out, “What does a more efficient, more sustainable city look like?”

Are people ready to accept a smaller city, with fewer services?

It is going to be extremely tough to talk about that. But it is imperative that we get to a redesign of the city that the government can support. The government can’t continue to maintain an infrastructure meant for more than twice the present population.

Isn’t part of the problem for Detroit that so much of the economic activity occurs outside the city limits? Even Kresge is located in a distant suburb.

Currently, over 50 percent of Detroiters work outside Detroit, so there are definitely discussions to be had with surrounding municipalities. However, Detroit is still one of the top three largest employment centers in the region. I think everyone agrees: A strong region requires a strong urban core.

Are there limits to what government can do?

Government can make some transformative moves, but those are going to be combined with a lot of smaller-scale efforts that bubble up from the grass roots. There are already examples of that happening. For example, people are using public art projects and community agriculture to transform entire neighborhoods.

Some people have suggested turning swaths of Detroit into farmland.

Community gardening is already having an amazing impact by providing access to healthy food in communities where it was not readily available. Whether that can be ratcheted up to a scale where it significantly alters the urban form remains to be seen.

Is lead in the soil a problem for urban farmers?

One of these things we’re going to try to get a handle on is what the general levels of toxicity are, and what impact they have on farming at any large scale. We do think that there are opportunities for other natural ecologies to play a role in the transformation of the city. For example, there are a number of underground rivers that we are looking at, with the idea that they can be resurfaced to create new naturalized areas in the city.

How has Detroit changed since you worked on the Renaissance Center in the 1990s?

Back then, there was no street life in downtown Detroit. The majority of ground-floor retail was boarded up, and there were talks of creating an entertainment district, based on bringing a sports team back to downtown.

And now?

There is a vibrancy to the downtown. At ground level, local and national retailers are thriving. [Campus Martius Park] has become a hub—a local version of New York’s Bryant Park. Meanwhile, a number of corporations have located their headquarters in downtown; it isn’t just GM. The Lions and the Tigers both play in downtown. Between that and the convention business, there are 50 million visitors to the city each year. Given the tough economic times, I think that’s a lot of progress.

What advice has the mayor given you?

“Change is hard, but we’ve got to make the city better.”

And Rip Rapson, the president of Kresge?

“Make no little plans.”

Given your public and private sector roles, do you feel pressure to serve two masters?

I feel like I’m serving many masters: the current and future residents of Detroit.